| Thu, Dec 11, 2014 @ 09:00 AM

The Silent Killer: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Posted by Medicare Made Clear

carbon monoxide poisoningDid you know that accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is responsible for about 400 deaths and 20,000 visits to emergency rooms annually?1 Everyone is at risk of CO poisoning, especially older adults with pre-existing conditions, like chronic heart disease, anemia, or respiratory problems.

Carbon monoxide is often called the Silent Killer because it’s odorless, colorless and hard to detect. Carbon monoxide is produced by gas, oil, or coal burning appliances, or by burning charcoal and wood. If CO is allowed to build up in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces, like your home or garage, it can cause severe illness or death.

How it Happens

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, red blood cells pick up CO quicker than they pick up oxygen. If there is a lot of CO in the air, the body may replace oxygen in the blood with CO. This blocks oxygen from getting into the body, which can damage tissues and cause death. Carbon monoxide can also combine with proteins in tissues, destroying the tissues, which can cause injury and death.2

What it Looks Like

The symptoms of CO poisoning look a lot like the flu. Headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion are the most common symptoms of CO poisoning. If you’re sleeping in a room that has a buildup of CO, you may not be aware of symptoms and will be at greater risk of death. That’s why it’s important to install CO detectors in every bedroom and other sleeping areas. Even if CO buildup does not cause death, continuous, low level CO exposure can cause other health issues, like memory problems or impaired judgment. If you experience symptoms of CO poisoning, get out of the house and seek medical attention immediately.


Half of all accidental CO poisoning deaths may be preventable with the use of CO detectors3, yet less than one third of American homes have them installed.4 While a CO detector may help protect you from CO poisoning, it’s still important to do what you can to help prevent a buildup of carbon monoxide from happening at all.


  • Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year.
  • Have your heating system, water heater and other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Have your gas appliances in your home, cabin, or camper properly vented.
  • Install battery-operated or battery back-up CO detectors in every bedroom.
  • Check CO detectors regularly to be sure they are functioning properly.


  • Don’t run a vehicle in the garage with the garage door shut or inside a garage that is attached to a house.
  • Don’t use a gas range or oven, or portable gas camp stove to heat your home, cabin, camper or other enclosed structure.
  • Don’t use a charcoal grill or a barbecue grill indoors.
  • Don’t use a portable generator inside your home, basement, or garage. Position it at least 20 feet away from the house and away from windows, doors and vents. Watch this video from the CDC for more information on portable generator safety.

For more information, explore MedicareMadeClear.com or contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048.


Carbon Monoxide Q & A CDC.gov

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Medicare Made Clear: Keep current with Medicare information

1, 2 Carbon Monoxide Poisoning FAQs, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 3, 2014

3, 4 Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, January 2009

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